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In ‘Parabellum,’ John Wick is on the run again

Keanu Reeves in a scene from “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.” Lionsgate via AP

AP Film Writer

Movies can be blessedly simple. As the first “John Wick” showed, all you really need is a car, a gun, a dead dog and Keanu Reeves. Who needs “kiss kiss” when you’ve got plenty of “bang bang”?

Alas, nothing in today’s movie-land stays minor-key. Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick” has quickly spouted into a three-and-counting series, the latest of which is “John Wick: Chapter 3 î Parabellum.” What was once a taut, minimalist action movie with an appeal predicated on low-expectations and leanness has grown into a franchise with a typically overcooked subtitle and de-rigueur world-building.

“Parabellum” finds Stahelski, Reeves’ former stunt double who has directed all three films, moving further beyond Wick’s hardboiled origins and into a more extravagant action thriller. In its ever-expanding fictional realm, “Parabellum” isn’t so dissimilar from a superhero movie, only one with way more blood, a much higher body count and, yes, righteously better action scenes.

It starts right where we left off with Reeves’ uber-hitman. He’s on the run in New York having violated the fiercely enforced rules of the High Table, an international assassin’s guild that sets combat protocol for a vast criminal netherworld, including that no “business” should be conducted in the Continental, the Manhattan hotel presided over with panache by its manager, Winston (Ian McShane).

Ruthless as the world of John Wick is, it’s a rigidly ordered one, full of slavish fidelity to a warrior code that’s part samurai, part magician. There’s a $14 million bounty on Wick’s head, just posted by the High Table, which has begun a soon-to-conclude countdown to make Wick “excommunicado.” For every other bounty hunter, it’s open-season on John Wick. And in these films, one lurks down every alley; the ratio of regular person to hitman is, like, 2 to 1.

From the get-go, the visual landscape of “Parabellum” — a nighttime New York downpour with dashes of neon all around — is vivid, nearly turning Time’s Square into Hong Kong. With little time to go, Wick heads to where all hitmen go in times of need: the library.

Beginning with the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library (where Wick, wielding a tome pulled from the stacks, fights a giant played by 76ers backup center Boban Marjanovic), “Parabellum” excels in its New York locations. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh are the movie’s most potent weapons.

With pursuers all around, Wick stealthily seeks out old associates for help, including Anjelica Huston, as a kind of ballet-and-wrestling instructor, and Halle Berry, who has a fiefdom in Casablanca and a few lethal dogs that severely test the bounds of “good boy.” He appeals to them on the basis of old bonds that, he hopes, supersede the decrees of the High Table.

With a seamless mix of CGI and stunt work, Stahelski fluidly choreographs ballets of bullets and endless violent encounters across a grim cityscape. In some sequences, the action is clever, stylish and syncopated with the camera in motion. There are sleek showdowns surrounded by reflective glass; inventive weapon selections, when assailants corner Wick in a corridor of antique knives; and chases on horse, under an elevated subway, and by motorcycle, in a blur across a bridge. In one moment, a tussle plunges underwater, and the action takes on a slow-motion beauty.

There is no doubt that these sequences are quite easily a cut above what most any other action film is currently doing. Rated R.